The climate crisis is a classic example of a "collective action problem." These are problems that are enormous at the group level, but at the level of an individual can seem inconsequential. Taking action may even feel irrational to an individual. What does my one extra flight matter? How does it matter how the ingredients in my ice cream sundae were sourced? How does it change anything if I leave the lights on all night?
In other words: so what?
But these decisions do matter the moment you think about "scale." Millions of flights and billions of ice cream sundaes add up. Here I provide ground-level examples of how the climate crisis, a collective action problem, is already affecting millions of individuals in a tangible way.
First, the (Very) Big Picture
The impacts of climate change are far from abstract. There are extraordinary economic, social, and health costs to the damage we are inflicting on the planet.
For one, the rising intensity of natural disasters is and will continue to wreak havoc on households and businesses. By 2100, climate-related damages could cost the US economy $1.9 trillion per year. Some financial assets may simply become uninsurable, which, in our interconnected capitalist society, means they can no longer exist (think homes in coastal areas, for example).
But it's not just economic costs—climate change has incredibly high social and health costs as well. Of the 68.5 million refugees who lost or fled their homes in 2017, more than one-third are believed to have been displaced due to climate change. An estimated 143 million people will be displaced by climate-related factors by 2050. At the same time, an estimated 30 percent decrease in crop yield due to climate change could lead to significant food and water insecurity, spurring conflict over resources. Natural disasters and the increased mobility of tropical and water-borne diseases will contribute to at least 250,000 additional deaths each year between 2030 and 2050.
Human experience expressed through statistics can feel abstract and make us numb to suffering. I’ve chosen a few representative US examples of the ways in which humanity is beginning to face the real consequences of climate change. I could have picked any country and found equally compelling examples, but I wanted to show how the richest and most powerful nation in history is being affected.
I also hope these will show you how complex each situation is, and how difficult it is to boil the issues down to bullet points—which is one reason some of the bullet point "solutions" that are being discussed, to which we will come later, are not going to work.
Climate change in the United States: four examples
Miami, on the Florida coast, is the large American city most at risk from the effect of climate change on the oceans. It has been dealing with rising sea levels for some decades now—the sea level around Miami has risen eight inches since 1950. Today, that sea-level rise is accelerating, with one inch added every three years. By 2050, the water level could be a foot higher than it is today.
You might think, "One foot doesn't seem so bad—we'll just lose a bit of the beach!" But when sea levels rise, salty seawater can seep into the drinking water supply, making it unusable. Ocean water can also get pushed up drainage pipes, causing flooding even on beautiful sunny days and threatening to disrupt fragile sewage systems. This kind of flooding, called tidal flooding, is expected to become eight times more common by 2030. When storms do happen, floodwaters are more likely to reach and damage homes, businesses, and public facilities. These nightmarish scenarios are not hypothetical— they're already happening.
Some people (including famous residents of nearby Palm Beach) might respond, "Just build a wall!" But unfortunately, Miami sits on a bed of porous limestone, which one Army Corps engineer described as "Swiss cheese." That means that rising sea levels can actually saturate the bedrock below the city and seep up to the surface, worsening flooding.
The Miami real estate market is dominated by people who don't actually live there—about 50 percent of condos in the area are owned by absentee landlords—for whom a financial loss would be unfortunate, but not ruinous. For those who are residents—including many of my fellow VCs who have convinced themselves that Miami is the new Silicon Valley—wealth can insulate them from the worst of the climate effects. They can afford high insurance premiums and expensive weatherproofing. Residents of the island of Key Biscayne, home of the Ritz Carlton, even voted to allow the municipality to issue $100 million in bonds to be used for climate resilience projects.
It is useful in this context to know that 69 of the world's billionaires (about 2.5 percent) are from Florida, with at least 35 hailing from Palm Beach, an hour north of Miami. On the other hand, Miami's poverty rate is nearly 25 percent, a rate that is around double the national average. Miami is third among US cities for income inequality, and the metro area's Gini coefficient, a quantitative measure of economic inequality, is similar to those of Colombia and Brazil.
And those who are not rich are going to have to pay a devastating price. Fifty-one percent of homeowners in high-risk areas are low-income, and just one in three properties in these areas is insured. And flood insurance costs are skyrocketing—some have even predicted that the high costs will be enough to spur another mortgage crisis.
Low-income households are also more susceptible to being pushed aside by high-income transplants. Currently, there is a scramble for property on Miami's Atlantic Coastal Ridge, an area whose elevation is more than double that of Miami-Dade's mean and which includes Little Haiti and Liberty City, where the Oscar-winning movie Moonlight takes place. Its communities are largely low-income and African American, but that is likely to change over the next decade as the wealthy engage in "climate gentrification," building new developments like the billion-dollar Magic City Innovation District. In a city that already faces an affordable housing crisis, these residents may be forced to leave the city or, perhaps, live in the less desirable areas that the wealthy fled.
In addition to the sea-level rise, Florida is also the victim of the extreme weather patterns I mentioned in the last chapter. Although they aren't occurring more frequently, hurricanes are becoming more intense and more damaging. You may remember the impacts of Hurricane Michael in 2018, Hurricane Irma in 2017, and Hurricane Wilma in 2005, but these are just three of 34 tropical storms and hurricanes that have hit Florida in the last twenty years.
California’s ecoscape will change in numerous ways in the coming years thanks to climate change, and the state is a case study in how the effects of climate change are nuanced and complex. Wildfires have received much of the recent press about California and climate, and so I want to talk about something else that is essential: water.
Some of the toughest climate-related issues in California will involve water management, and much of the difficulty will arise from a lack of predictability. In aggregate over a given time period, say a year, there may not be much change, but extreme intra-year swings can mean that parts of California may run out of water. Having excess water would not be any consolation six months after that water is needed!
California's chief sources of water are the Central Valley Project, the California State Water Project, and the Colorado River Aqueduct. These projects channel water from snowmelt in Northern California and the Rockies to drier areas in Central and Southern California. The importance of these water systems can't be overstated—the Colorado River, for example, sustains 40 million people in the American West and waters 15 percent of the U.S.'s food supply.
But when the temperatures are higher and there is less snowfall, there is less snowpack, and those water sources are depleted. The snowpack of the Sierra Nevada mountains is expected to decline by between 48 and 65 percent by the end of the century. For people who rely on the one-third of California's water supply that comes from snowpack, this is very bad news.
The state has experienced several severe droughts over the last few decades, and some scientists think that the last twenty years have been part of an unprecedented "megadrought". Scientists used to be divided on how closely these droughts are connected to climate change. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a report in 2014 that found that the deficit in rain during the 2011–2014 drought was due to natural variance. More recently, though, other scientists have suggested that although droughts may happen independent of climate change, the higher temperatures caused by global warming are speeding evaporation of the water that does exist, worsening the effects of drought.
California also faces an unexpected problem in addition to these droughts—hello, complicated climate change effects!—which is flooding. While this decade has included some of the driest years in recent memory, it has had some of the wettest years as well. Studies have suggested that when rainfall in California does happen, its intensity is increasing, dumping immense amounts of water all at once and causing flooding and mudslides. These immediate shifts from a dry season to an overabundance of rain, called "precipitation whiplash," are expected to go up by 50 percent by 2050. Unfortunately, the overabundance of rain doesn't solve the water shortages which follow drought years, due to lack of storage and other challenges with capturing runoff.
This variability and complexity has led to residents and farmers turning to groundwater, water that is pumped out of underground aquifers, for their water needs. But this source of water is limited— aquifers refill too slowly to keep up with high demands, even with the torrential rainfall I just mentioned. In 2008, groundwater levels hit a record low. Water that hasn't seen the surface of the earth in 20,000 years is being pumped up to the surface, causing drained aquifers to collapse and sinking parts of the state at a rate of two ft. per year.
Until 2014, there was no statewide regulation of groundwater usage, so in some communities that depend on aquifers for their drinking water supply, there have been shortages of drinking water as groundwater declines. The primary victims of this problem are small, disadvantaged communities that have difficulties maintaining centralized water systems, leaving residents to maintain their own wells.
Weirdly enough, on the whole, Californians aren't necessarily using more water. Despite population and economic growth, total water use in California has remained at a pretty consistent level since the 1980s, thanks to improvements to agricultural and urban efficiency. And while farmers are blamed for using too much water, the share of agricultural use out of total use is declining.
But there is reason to believe that that water usage is still much higher than it needs to be, because of California's convoluted system for delegating water rights. Farmers who don't use the water allocated to them lose the right to that water in future years, incentivizing them to pad their usage.
And residential water usage has gone up, due in part to inefficient behavior. Once again, the rich carry an outsize portion of responsibility. According to a study done at UCLA, wealth was the most reliable predictor of water use in Los Angeles water districts. Wealthy homeowners are not as susceptible to hikes in water prices, and when the governor instituted mandatory water cuts in 2015, wealthy communities including Beverly Hills missed the savings target month after month. One homeowner in Bel Air used 11.8 million gallons of water in one year, the equivalent of the standard use of 90 homes.
When we think about air pollution, we tend to think of the more hellish images of Beijing or New Delhi. And when we think more about it, we tend not to associate it directly with “climate change.” Both assumptions are wrong, and New York is a good example of why. The city had 206 days in 2018 when air quality was unhealthy for sensitive groups. And air pollution and the climate crisis are completely intertwined—it is, by definition, emissions that cause air pollution in the first place, and the pollutants serve to add to the greenhouse effect that is at the heart of the climate crisis.
The biggest sources of New York City's greenhouse gas emissions are the combustion of natural gas (31%), the use of electricity (25%), and the combustion of gasoline (24%). You'd think that since people in New York live in smaller apartments and have fewer cars than people in other areas of the country, emissions would be low. That is just not true, though. Per capita, New York is 91st among the 500 biggest cities in the world for carbon emissions. That is not the worst, but it is very far from being good. There is also no escaping the sheer size of the city—in total, it has the biggest carbon footprint in the United States and is second only to Seoul and Guangzhou worldwide.
Despite these high emissions, air quality in New York is not horrible. But as we've seen with the previous examples, exposure to air pollution does not affect us all equally.
African American and Latino residents of New York are exposed to more air pollution than white New Yorkers. New York State's most polluted census tract is in the West Bronx, where 70 percent of the population is Hispanic and 29 percent is African American. And the Bronx neighborhood Mott Haven, where 97 percent of residents are Hispanic or Black, has been nicknamed "Asthma Alley" because its air pollution levels are incredibly high, causing respiratory problems for residents.
Why is this the case? Vehicle emissions are one of the chief sources of pollution in New York, and the Bronx is home to several of the New York City metro area's busiest highways. This goes back to decisions made in the early- and mid-20th century by city planners like Robert Moses about who should bear the imposition of city infrastructure. And the legacy of those decisions lives on—higher-income residents can afford to live in parts of the city with more green space, less traffic, and less pollution.
The term "desertification" in the climate context does not necessarily mean tumbleweeds and cactuses. Desertification is a broad term for a decline in soil quality, vegetation, and wildlife. The decreasing groundwater we spoke about in California actually also counts as desertification, but I want to look at another example here—the desertification of Texas.
Like California, Texas has seen some exceptionally dry years in the past decade. The state's drought from 2010 to 2015 was its second-longest on record, and in 2011, a striking 88 percent of the state experienced exceptional drought conditions.
About 74 percent of Texas' land is dedicated to agriculture, which contributes $25 billion to the US economy each year. Most of that value comes from cattle, with cotton and milk products a distant second and third. Most people are aware of how harmful raising livestock is to the climate—in some estimates, livestock produces more greenhouse gases than all the cars on the planet combined. Here I don't want to tackle that issue—I am just focused on the local impact.
The cattle industry developed in Texas thanks to the area's grassy plains and the knowledge of Spanish missionaries, with some ranches even predating the American Revolution. Texas was (and is currently) also the nation's chief producer of cotton. But as demand for beef grew and the development of railroads expanded markets for cattle, more and more of Texas' land was claimed for profitable cattle ranches. Since 1970, livestock products have exceeded crop sales in Texas.
Climate scientists predict that higher temperatures and inconsistent precipitation could make plains that are vital to cattle raising more vulnerable, with decreased and variable vegetation growth. Additionally, cattle herds are likely to be less healthy due to heat stress. Texas' drought of 2011 saw over $7 billion in losses in the agricultural sector, including the largest decline in beef cattle inventory in Texas history.
One might think, "Maybe it's for the best—maybe it will encourage alternative sources of protein that aren't so bad for the environment!" But unfortunately, cosmic justice appears to be not as sophisticated as the systems in place to get you your hamburger. People still want beef. Per capita beef consumption has remained largely the same since 2010.
As in California, during these dry years, Texas has relied on groundwater to make up for the lack of precipitation, draining underground aquifers close to empty. When beef production becomes less profitable in Texas due to the high costs of producing healthy grazing pastures, other beef-producing countries are happy to step in. In fact, 75 to 80 percent of grass-fed beef in the US comes from abroad. The people who suffer most are actually workers in Texas who lose their livelihoods as ranches and processing plants are shuttered.
As in California, during these dry years, Texas has relied on groundwater to make up for the lack of precipitation, draining underground aquifers close to empty. When beef production becomes less profitable in Texas due to the high costs of producing healthy grazing pastures, other beef-producing countries are happy to step in. In fact, imports account for 75 to 80 percent of grass-fed beef sales in the US. The people who suffer most from this decline are workers in Texas who lose their livelihoods as ranches and processing plants are shuttered.
The little guy always gets screwed
I could pick a thousand other examples (and in future versions of this chapter, I might add examples from around the world). But hopefully this much should be clear: Miami, California, New York, and Texas may seem very different in the effects of the climate crisis, but their situations have two unifying themes:
- The climate crisis is already having massive, debilitating effects.
- All these consequences affect the poor far more than they do other groups.
Multiple books have been written on these topics, and many more will surely follow. But the story I am telling here is about behavior, so now let's make the link directly to how our own behavior is at the heart of the problem. Without that understanding, we can’t get to solutions.
Impacts of climate change
- Book | Disposable City: Miami's Future on the Shores of Climate Catastrophe
- Video | Is Miami Beach Doomed?
- Study | How Will Climate Change Affect California's Water Resources?
- Website | What You Need to Know About the Water Crisis in the West
- Interactive Article | California Drought, Visualized with Open Data
- Article | See How the World's Most Polluted Air Compares with Your City's
- Interactive Map | Visualizing Air Pollution